Stephanie Neuts walks along Stuart Street Saturday while collecting signatures for a citizen’s petition that would cap new homeless shelters in Portland at 50 beds. Exceptions would be made for family and domestic violence shelters. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

A  group of Portland residents took to the streets last weekend to gather signatures for a November referendum that would limit the size of new homeless shelters in the city.

The group, Portland for Smaller Shelters, launched its petition drive after its unsuccessful attempts to get the city to scrap its plans for a 200-bed shelter in Riverton and instead embrace the idea of smaller shelters scattered around the city.

It hopes to change Portland’s zoning standards to ensure new homeless shelters are open 24 hours a day and be limited to no more than 50 beds. The size of family and domestic violence shelters would not be limited under their proposal.

If petitioners can collect 1,500 certifiable signatures by July 11, their measure will be placed on the November ballot. The city, meanwhile plans to discuss recently received proposals to build the 200-bed shelter May 18.

Signature collection began May 1 with canvassing in the Riverton neighborhood, where organizer Stephanie Neuts estimated 200 to 300 signatures were collected. Other signature drives are planned in Nasons Corner, Libbytown, North Deering, the West End and Munjoy Hill.

“I’ve had people message me from all five districts asking me to bring a sheet for them to collect signatures,” Neuts said.

Smaller shelters throughout the city, according to the group, “provide safe and dignified shelter and services to those in need while fostering a safe and positive environment in the vicinity of shelters.”

Opposition to the planned 200-bed shelter grew during the pandemic, when it became difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19 in congregate living settings.  The Oxford Street shelter, the group said, experienced a  COVID outbreak in early 2021 “despite cutting its capacity in half and taking other precautions.”

Oxford Street Shelter typically houses more than 200 people, but to abide by physical distancing requirements, the capacity has been reduced to 75. The Portland Expo and gymnasium at the University of Southern Maine in Portland were used last year as temporary shelter space.

Over the last week the city was providing housing for more than 300 men and women, including 45 at Oxford Street Shelter, 111 at hotels through contracts with the state and 146 at hotels through the general assistance office, according to City Communications Director Jessica Grondin.  Another 23 families (68 people) were staying at the family homeless shelter and 63 families (192 people) were staying in hotels, Grondin said.

Smaller Shelters member Carolyn Silvius, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, said she has heard positive feedback from Portland residents about the petition.

“A lot of people are telling me they are pretty glad somebody is doing something about getting the will of the people (heard),” Silvius said. “What I have been hearing is ‘it is about time.’ The City Council has been unresponsive for years. They do what they want regardless of what the people want. It’s been that way forever.”

Silvius, who spent 10 months in 2016 living at Florence House, a facility on Valley Street that offers 25 efficiency apartments and emergency shelter for homeless women, said a “mega shelter cannot possible serve the people it is supposed to – the homeless – simply because they’ll be too many of them.”

Riverton resident and commercial property owner Annette Hoglund said the council decision was not the right one.

“That’s a horrendous, inhumane place to put people, especially for people trying to get back on their feet. It’s something they should reconsider,” she said.

Neuts said the effort is not about keeping a homeless shelter from Riverton, but rather aimed at the city’s plans for the Riverside location, which she said is not a great location for a homeless shelter. Reducing the capacity for a new shelter to 50-beds, she said, could reopen some of the other city-owned sites that were rejected when the council was looking at prior to choosing the Riverside location.

But the bigger effort, Silvius said, is not really about homeless shelters, it is about providing housing for those who need it.

“The shelter is not the goal,” she said. “Housing is the goal. We want to get people housed. We don’t want them in shelters.”

 

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